Nobody Would Have Been Surprised If I Had Died


I rode my bike home as the sun rose. I wrapped the Christmas presents and put them under the tree. I quickly made pancakes, which my mother had always done for us on Christmas morning. My sisters woke up shortly after and opened their gifts. If they were disappointed in the small bounty, they didn’t say. We got out the silver pots, played the records and sang the songs. It was a happy Christmas morning. The only thing missing was our audience.

My mother called hours later. They were driving back from Vegas. Would I find a restaurant open for Christmas dinner? Scouring the Yellow Pages, I made a reservation at a Chinese restaurant in the next town, and it was there my mother showed us her diamond ring and told us they were getting married. From that day forward, he lived with us. The changes happened rather fast.

I never liked meat. Even as a very small child, my mother told me I would spit out beef. For dinner, my mother made meatloaf, his favorite. She gave me the side dishes: mashed potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese. He insisted I eat the meatloaf. I wouldn’t. My mother defended me. But he was the man of the house now. I could not leave the kitchen table until I ate the meatloaf. My mother shook me awake the next morning. I had fallen asleep. She had a black eye. I never saw him hit her. But I didn’t have to eat the meatloaf.

He bought her a red Lotus, an expensive sports car with a stick shift. Then, they took another trip to Vegas and left us alone. I stole my mother’s car keys and drove my sisters to school in the brand new Lotus. I taught myself how to drive her stick shift, but not very well, because I hit a tree in the school parking lot. Students stared. Teachers stared. The car was towed.

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I was 14 and didn’t have a driver’s license. They called my mother in Vegas. She returned with a black eye, a split lip and a badly bruised arm hanging limply by her side. He walked right past me into the house without saying a word. She looked right at me and said, quietly, “I took it for you.”

It was my fault I wrecked the car. It was my fault he beat her.

My mother started drinking more. He started drinking more. The fights happened more. A passion play and we were the audience. Parenting became an afterthought. When the food in the house ran out, my sisters and I would take a taxi and my mother’s checkbook to the grocery store. We’d load up the shopping cart and not with very good choices. In front of the cashier, I’d carefully fill out the dollar amount on the check, and then forge my mother’s signature. It was a small town.

Everybody knew why. But nobody said a thing.

What we allow will continue. What continues will escalate.

Life became a routine. When the fighting started downstairs, my younger sisters left their bedrooms and showed up in mine. The record player went on. The record collection grew. I learned which chair to wedge under the doorknob to keep my bedroom door shut. I learned which concealer worked best to hide her bruises the next morning. Sometimes, the ambulance would come. Sometimes, she’d wear dark sunglasses, a loose sweatshirt and a big floppy hat when she walked the dogs.

Everybody knew. But nobody said a thing.

What we allow will continue. What continues will escalate.

There were moments of hope. Because nobody is angry and violent all day, every day. They just have to be angry and violent one day. My mother would wake us up in the middle of the night, and tell us to pack a suitcase. We’d hole up in a hotel. We were underworld spies, prisoners from a jailbreak. We’d order food, watch Charlie’s Angels, hope to never to be found. But we were never really lost, because a day or two later, he’d knock on the hotel door, carrying flowers. And it was over. Because who doesn’t want to go to Disneyland? Who doesn’t want to be the first house on the block to have a swimming pool?

My mother hated guns, so there were no guns in our house. I slept with a butcher knife under my pillow. I used it once. I was 16. The fighting downstairs stopped, abruptly, in the middle of my mother’s scream. I called 911 and then I crept downstairs. He was hunched over her body. She was on the floor in a pool of her own blood. I put the knife to the back of his neck to stop him from killing my mother. The ambulance came and took her away. The police came and took him away. We snuck into a next door neighbor’s backyard and slept on their lawn furniture. We woke up with blankets. Of course, they knew.

Everybody knew. But nobody said a thing.

What we allow will continue. What continues will escalate.

Weeks later, I was called out of my high school English class. My mother was at the school and wanted to talk to me. It was Halloween. I was a vampire, my long black cape flapping in the wind. She, newly released from the hospital, looked like a mummy, with her hollow eyes, her head shaved and her 32 stitches wrapped in white bandages. School was in session, so we were alone. She’d paid his bail. He was sorry. He was waiting at the house. Would I give him another chance, please?

My mother came to my school, begging me not to break up with her.

“When all the others turn their backs and walk away

You can count on me to stay…”

I broke my own heart when I did not come home from school that day. My mother could “take it” for me, but I couldn’t “take it” anymore. My middle sister, 13, ran away. Our father, remarried with two new small children, put her into a boarding school. My youngest sister, who had a different father from my mother’s second marriage, was only 6, so she cried herself to sleep at night. Our family was torn apart. So they moved to a new house on the outskirts of our small town on a secluded dirt road.

Katherine Fugate
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Creator/ExecProd of “Army Wives.” Screenwriter of “Valentine’s Day” & “New Year’s Eve.” Joining Forces w/ Michelle Obama. Activist. Madeleine’s Mom. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.